I’m Stef Hamerlinck. A brand designer and strategist. I founded Let’s talk branding so I can help other designers learn more about strategy, design and branding.

Client red flags: where to look for and how to deal with red flag clients.

Client red flags: where to look for and how to deal with red flag clients.

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Most of you designers have had that moment in a project where you think: "I could have known this." Or something like: "I already felt something was of."

These are not imaginary feelings, these could be the so called 'Red flags'. Things that should alert your spider sense. If you see these red flags, do not panic or walk away from the project. Try to dig deeper and see if you can show the client why that is not a good starting point. In this article I would like to adres some of these red flags, what they are and how to deal with them.

As usual, I went digging in some design communities what designers have encountered. There where a lot of interesting stories and feedback. I tried to group them in a few big problems.

1. The promise: more work, portfolio,..

"There will be more work after this". "This will be great for your portfolio". The promise red flag is about clients that make promises that imply some sort of value other then money.

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Why is it a red flag?

It's not a problem that some projects can look great on your portfolio, or that there will be more work after this project. It's the fact that it is used to lower the price. I have experienced anytime this argument pops up, it's an excuse for saying: we do not have the money to pay you right now, but...

How to deal with it.

A couple of things: if there is a promise of 'more work' after, there are some things to consider:

  • "If in some way, we do not like working together, how does this 'more work' promise benefit me? Why not do this first project to see how we connect? If I can bring you a lot of value, we can establish a long lasting relationship."

  • "If we do like working together, would you be willing to put this in writing, and if so, how much work, for what budget?" If the answer is no to this, then you know they are just using it to lower the price, if it's yes, it can be interesting to work out a retainer contract.

The promise that it will be great for your portfolio, because it's a 'big brand' can be great, but mention this:

  • A portfolio is nice to have, but it's not what our job is about, we design to solve problems for clients. A project should never be about the portfolio (at least not client work), because in some cases, the solution needed will not 'fit' my portfolio.

  • If the budget is lower influenced by the matter of 'portfolioness'. Would that mean that the less likely it is I can put it on my portfolio, the more budget we would have? Probably that is not the case, so you see how these two do not influence each other?

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2. The client designer: stick to what you know.

Some clients have a design background, some think they just have a 'good eye'. This type of client usually says stuff like: "It will be easy because I know design", "Maybe I can do some sketches myself", ...

Why is it a red flag?

This seems to be a good thing, it will be much easier talking with a fellow designer. In most cases: No. First of, having 'some knowledge' of design is not the same as being a designer. Secondly, clients like this like to 'dictate' to work or the final outcome. It's like going in to a garage and standing next to the guy when he's fixing your car, you just leave them do their thing :-).

How to deal with it.

I have had good and bad experiences with this kind of client, so don't be afraid, when this is communicated up front, it can work. Just make sure you talk about it:

  • How will the decision making proces look like, are you the only one in the company deciding? Do we have some 'non-designers to weigh in'?


3. The minimizer: Making an elephant look like an ant.

"It's not a lot of work", it's just a little tweak, we already have a good idea of what we want,... These clients will try to minimise the amount of work to lower the budget.

Why is it a red flag?

Clients that try to downplay the amount of design work usually consider design work 'practical'. They see your skillset as one that helps them at the end of the road. They usually consider as better judges of what needs to happen.

How to deal with it.

The most important part is convincing the client that you are not just a 'pixelpusher'. That you are creating a solution that is valuable. Also, you can explain that there is never 'just' a tweak, because then you are not solving the problem. Questions or answers to consider:

  • Do you think this 'little tweak' will solve your problem?

  • What is the 'business' problem that you want to solve?

  • What if the idea/sketch you have is not the right solution, do we create a new budget?

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4. The maximizer: you are God.

I know you will create something amazing. Work your magic. I know you can create something beautiful.

Why is it a red flag?

It's nice to get trust, it's great even. But sometimes it can feel a bit 'out of place' or overplaying your role. You are not a magician, you are practicing your craft and creating a brand is a process.

How to deal with it.

Don't be a partypooper, it's nice to be happy with a client. Make sure you mention that every project you had was a great collaboration between you and a client.

  • A logo or identity doesn't always 'connect' immeadiatly, it needs to work on the long run. This is a great video to explain your client. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcF1KBnlvTc

  • In this project (insert portfolio case) we worked 2 months on creating the right mark.

  • Show them your process: moodboard, sketching, presentation, development of the identity, ... Unravvel 'the magic' and make it tangible.

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The comparison brief: I want a brand like ...

I want a brand like Apple, Nike, ... It's okay to be inspired by brands. But remember these brands have put millions in branding and have been around for years.

Why is it a red flag?

Not only is it setting the bar impossibly high, it's not a good idea to compare with any brand, unless you can really start defining what it its that they like about it.. 

How to deal with it.

Recieve this comment with joy, it's an opportunity to dig deep in to the client vision. Do not avoid the issue, adres it, use it as a way to provide value and insight.

  • Ask your client what it is that he likes about the brand
  • Use the five why's to dig deep. For example, he might say: I like how they are a premium product. Then ask: why do you think they are premium? Maybe he will say, because the packaging feels really cool. Then you could ask? What makes the packaging looks cool? 

You see how you can really start to uncover specific details and remove some of the 'mystery' and magic from the process. 

Of course there are a lot more red flags, here are some:

  • Payment issues: paying the deposit later, in stead of 50% up front, can we do 50 after i see the logo? Our company works on a different payment plan. Try to avoid this as much as possible, explain that working with you is on your own terms. The deposit is an engagement before starting the work and should always be honored. Every time we had clients 'avoiding' the deposit, there was trouble. 
  • Previous experiences with designers: I really could not work with that designer, I fired that designer. Really try to uncover why it went wrong
  • Vague comments: I'll know it when I see it, .. 

In general, I would advise the following in these early stages:

  • Be confident
  • Be transparant
  • Adres any fears or doubts you might have, why wait? 
  • Be real, you can't double sales with no efforts in budget
  • Don't be afraid to 'lose' the client, you are giving them more value by not 'selling' but listening. 
  • Use red flags as opportunities to show your vision and experience. Show your client that working with you will be a meaningfull connection. 

I hope this was interesting for you! Please let me know. If you want to get the next article in your inbox, please subscribe to the newsletter!








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